LESLIE CRISS: Three-toed turtle helps coax timid kids out of their shells

By Leslie Criss/NEMS Daily Journal

“The turtle makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”
– James Bryant Conant

“Try to be like the turtle – at ease in your own shell.”
– Bill Copeland

“Looking for peace is like looking for a turtle with a mustache: You won’t be able to find it. But when your heart is ready, peace will come looking for you.”
– Ajahn Chah

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by turtles. As an introvert, I think I’ve even felt a kinship with the prehistoric-looking creatures that retreat inside their shells when uncertain or afraid.
When I was a kid, I saved my allowance for several weeks and bought a couple of tiny turtles at Morgan & Lindsey’s, an old five and dime variety store in my hometown of Grenada.
The hard plastic refuge I purchased for the turtles’ habitat came complete with a miniature palm tree.
I don’t remember what I named my turtles, nor do I remember bonding with the two of them, but I did learn about responsibility since they depended on me for their daily sustenance and the care of their home.
I don’t think it was due to any mismanagement on my part that the duo lasted not near the decades they are allowed.
Years later, a friend’s parents took my friend and me on a spring break trip which included an afternoon at the Jackson Zoo. Just as we were about to leave to head home, someone was letting loose in the pond just outside the zoo a large turtle with a bright pink peace sign painted on its shell.
Deciding it would be fun to have a big turtle, my friend and I plucked it from the pond and held it between us on the backseat of her mama’s Cadillac all the way home to Grenada.
We built as best we could a place for it to live in June’s backyard, but after only a few days in captivity, our peace-loving turtle knocked down a wall and wandered away.
I’ve known lots of fine folks who stop to help these slow-movers to the other side of the road, often saving them from meeting their fates under the wheels of faster-moving vehicles.
Until recently, however, I’d not known of any turtles who help save people.
Then I read about Florida.
Florida, a three-toed box turtle, belongs to child and family therapist Dr. Mitch Spero in Plantation, Fla. Spero found Florida in a pet store back in 1983 and realized he’d found a prize when Florida sat up like a terrier while taking a leaf of lettuce from Spero’s hand.
The turtle’s tricks – rolling over, playing dead, knocking over block walls, waving, giving a high-five – have already secured Florida his 15 minutes of fame. He’s been on “Today,” “Ellen” and “The David Letterman Show.”
Mostly, Florida works with Spero to help teach shy, anxious children how to come out of their shells or break through barriers.
Detractors say Florida’s not really doing tricks – but I can tell you none of my three turtles ever did anything as remotely interesting as Florida.
Tricks or not, Florida helps kids.
That makes her a rare reptile indeed.
leslie.criss@journalinc.com